The Great British Baking Show isn’t what it used to be. The absurdly charismatic hosts from the first few seasons are long gone. Only one of the show’s original judges still remains (and it’s not the good one). The show’s own popularity has cost it much of its quaintness while more and more of the challenges seemed aimed at creating viral (potentially problematic) social media content rather than compelling television.
The Great British Baking Show’s saving grace has long been its contestants, whose charming normalness made the show somehow feel like anti-reality TV. It continues to melt the heart when the bakers help each other out (You’re competing! What are you doing?!) but on the whole the show is fast becoming a victim of its own success. As more and more contestants are also longtime fans of the show, it has begun feeling incestuous and self-aggrandizing instead of quaint. Its popularity has also all but guaranteed that contestants can launch a social media baking career with just an appearance on the show. Fame (or the potential for fame) can corrupt anything, even a wholesome little baking show.
Taken altogether, the show just doesn’t feel like it used to. But I am happy to report that there is an alternative: The Great British Baking Show: The Professionals.
Available for streaming on Netflix, this spinoff series is the most enjoyable the show has been in years. First, as the name suggests, this isn’t a show about hobbyist bakers (or future social media stars). Instead, this show draws its contestants from professional bakers and pastry chefs, who compete as two-person teams. Critically, they operate actual bakeries. Don’t expect to find a precocious college-bound pastry wunderkind or an endearingly clumsy home baker among these contestants, who are all business (because for them, it already is!). Sure, that means there’s a little less drama among the contestants, but that was never what I was watching The Great British Baking Show for.
The other thing that makes watching these true professionals execute difficult bakes is that the only restraints they face are their own abilities. The show takes place indoors, which means there won’t be an episode where they cruelly make the contestants build chocolate sculptures in an outdoor tent in the hottest week of summer.
There’s also nothing like the technical challenge from the main series, where contestants take on a mystery recipe with intentionally vague instructions. Later seasons of the original show have made this segment more and more gimmicky. You won’t get the entertainingly wrong attempts at a recipe on The Professionals, but at least you don’t have to watch their pitiful attempts at making tacos.
The other thing that makes The Professionals so much more enjoyable is that it doesn’t share a single judge or host from the main show. It does have two hosts who might seem familiar: Tom Allen, who recently hosted a Great British Baking Show holiday special, and Liam Charles, who was a contestant on season 8, aka the first season after Mary Berry, Sue Perkins, and Mel Giedroyc left.
It would be too much to ask the hosts to measure up to Sue and Mel’s perfection. Frankly, hosts who aren’t annoying and/or boring would be more than enough — so it’s a real treat that Liam and Tom’s chemistry is genuinely entertaining. I’ve actually chuckled at some of their antics, none of which annoyed me to the point of wishing they’d just cut back to bakers.
Even better, the judges feel like an immediate improvement. Instead of Paul Hollywood’s obnoxious curtness or Prue Leith’s demure, milquetoast presence, The Professionals is hosted by two flamboyant, outspoken, fascinating judges: Benoit Blin and Cherish Finden. While the contestants overall are more buttoned-up… well… professionals, the judges bring the show an immense amount of personality and energy. Even as their antics and curious word choices can very nearly verge on silliness, they are also tough, intelligent judges. Their standards are also quite high: Some rounds, their biting critique leaves you wondering which team did the least bad.
It’s also refreshing to have a pair of judges that aren’t weighed down by multiple seasons of the show. Instead of the judging being condensed down to the cringey question of whether someone gets a Paul Hollywood Handshake®, the focus is on the bakes. You’ll often learn something about obscure pastries, intriguing flavor combinations, and what’s possible with sugar sculptures. It’s just nice to see The Great British Baking Show get back to great baking.